A climate for books
Scholastic’s acquisition of Red House Books which went to the Monopolies & Mergers Commission has been cleared by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The great amalgamation now comprises Red House Book Club, Party Plan, Scholastic Book Club, School Book Fairs, Scholastic Book Fairs, Scholastic Children’s Books (series include Point Horror, Babysitters Club and Horrible Histories) and Scholastic Educational Books and Magazines. Scholastic now becomes a major player in the £343 million UK children’s book market with a share of around 12%.
Scholastic’s new muscle in the book club and direct selling into schools markets may be keeping some other children’s publishers and other suppliers awake at night. But is it also a matter of concern for consumers? In a surprise move, David Teale, founder of Red House, elected to stay on as managing director of Red House and Scholastic Book Clubs and Party Plan and with responsibility for the overall selection of books. Red House maintained an open editorial policy, representing titles from a range of publishers in making selections. Will this continue and even in those areas where the Scholastic list is strong? Time will tell.
The range of titles available at Book Fairs – often the only way for hard pressed teachers to make books easily available to the children in their schools – is already circumscribed and with a strong emphasis on mass market series publishing. Adèle Geras reports (see Letters page) on ‘the exclusion of much mainstream fiction’ in favour of Point Horror and other series at Scholastic Book Fairs as well as their inflexibility; ‘they will not even stock books by a writer visiting the school on a one-off basis, where the children are eager to buy the books and have them signed.’ Geras continues: ‘I think children make the connection: this writer who’s chatting to us is not in our Book Fair – how good can she really be? This defeats the work being done by a writer visiting a school in the first place …’
However, Book Fairs should only be a part of current book provision to children and young people in our schools; they cannot be held to blame for not being able to meet expectations that they were not set up to fulfil. They are a way of making books available in schools and they play their part in ‘encouraging children to develop a lifelong love of books’ as Virginia Bottomley’s new and rather bizarre National Reading Initiative has it. The problem is rather that book provision overall has become so deprofessionalised that it is now to some large extent dependent on suppliers whose criteria are essentially profit orientated rather than educationally motivated.
Attitudes to reading, including the provision of books, cannot be considered separately from education policies and provision. Loughborough University’s library and information statistics unit in their latest report, A Survey of Library Services to Schools and Children in the UK 1995-96, reveals a library service in decline; there has been a four percent cut in real terms in public library spending on children’s books since 1990/91 and a 28% real cut in Schools Library Service materials funds over the same period.
Investment in both public and school libraries and adequate funding for the training of those librarians and teachers who mediate books to young readers are fundamental if we are to create a cultural climate in which it can be taken for granted that reading is valued and that a wide range of books should be made readily available to our children.